Engaging Children in Nature: Part 1

Music It’s really an honour and a privilege to be here. I was thinking I’ve told several people that the Welcome to Country thing that happens here before. I was here two years ago, not to this city but to Melbourne and Brisbane and Perth and Bendigo. When my wife and I got to Bendigo there was a bat attack, fruit bats you know, the giant fruit bats swarmed into the city, actually knocked the electricity out because they were landing on all the things. And it was so great and we were advised not to look up. And when I looked down and saw what they left I realised why we shouldn’t look up. It was like that. It was really magical, I loved that, a bat attack. But I wasn’t familiar with the Welcome to Country thing and so everyone of the speeches or events that I was at that would happen and I was really struck by it and I actually wrote about it in ‘The Nature Principle’ the new book that’s out talking about how I wish that my country would do that. I wish the Aboriginal peoples of my country had that kind of respectful ritual before every event not only because of the history which was not pleasant in my country or this but because I noticed that it did something to every one of the meetings that I was at. There was a kind of seriousness that came after that and I think it had to do, you use the word ‘country’ over and over again and I heard the word ‘land’ over and over again and almost a kind of mantra, ‘the land’, ‘the land’, ‘the land’ and I was thinking that the depth and seriousness of that, that the land beneath our feet, the country in which we live, that land has meaning and depth and not only to the Aboriginal people but to all of us because we’re all Aboriginal one way or another, Aboriginal to this Earth. And that connection to that land beneath our feet seemed to give every one of these meetings more substance. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that and I wish that my country would do that. And I said that in ‘The Nature Principle’ and it has to do with our connection to the Earth, to the land. But the role of technology is a little dicey. I mean there are parks in the United States where they’ve actually handed out iPods, not iPads but iPods with kind of recorded information about what you’re walking through in the forest. And your ears are plugged up so you can’t hear anything in the forest. That’s not my idea of a good use of technology. In fact I think that one of the litmus tests of this is how long does it take kids or any of us to look up from the screen and start noticing. Up to that point if technology can get kids into nature, get all of us into nature, get us exposed to it, then let’s use all the technology we can. But once in it if we can somehow begin to learn to use all of our senses, particularly the kids, and then you’re in another media environment and then you’re in a full media environment then you’re really listening to music you know and using all of your senses at the same time. That’s very similar in the United States, kids in school can tell you all about the Amazon Rainforest but generally what they can’t tell you about is the flora and fauna of their own backyard, their own bioregion. They can’t tell you also, usually about the last time they just went out and you know play in the weeds and watched the sky move, watch the clouds. So, they disconnect. Somehow nature’s abstract, it’s some-place else, it’s in another continent etc. The next step, and the WilderQuest folks are working on this is to make sure that that technology has a transition. That you transition from the technology to actual real experience in the real world, you take that knowledge and you apply it. We have to remember that technology and the connection of nature is not new. A fishing rod is technology, a compass, binoculars, that’s technology. But again the litmus test is how long does it take you to begin to use all of your senses in real nature once you’ve used that technology? Now, that doesn’t mean taking all the risk out of nature. Risk in nature, danger in nature is actually one of its attractions to kids and to adults. I know because as a kid I collected poisonous snakes. My parents didn’t know about it. This happened just the other day, somewhere in the garage, I’m cleaning the garage and every few years this bottle will show up, it’s an old fruit bottle and in it is a very dehydrated and very unhappy looking Copperhead, which is a poisonous snake in the Midwest United States. All the formaldehyde has dried up years ago and so every now and then it’ll surface in our garage. It surfaced like four days ago in my office when I clean my office you know once every five years whether it needs it or not and there was that snake again. Well, how it got into my office I don’t know. I couldn’t remember where that snake came from and then a buddy of mine, my middle school and high school best friend came and stayed with us and he saw it and I asked him ‘I don’t remember that’. He said ‘I remember that. I remember seeing you …’ My friend had a snake phobia and he said ‘I remember you at the bottom of the hill …’ I was probably about eleven or twelve and I was racing up the hill and he said ‘Your knees were bloody, your elbows were bloody and you were waving that damn snake in the air and you looked so happy’. So, this isn’t to pull back from fear of nature, is not the same as pulling back from the excitement that there is some danger in nature. That is part of its fascination. That is part of what it does for us in ‘The Nature Principle’, the new book there’s an early chapter about all of the senses and it ends with a sense of humility which is one of the most important things that children can learn from nature and that has something to do with the danger in nature. Now, what has happened is that kids have been withdrawing from nature for a lot of reasons but one of the most important is fear of human beings – a stranger danger. I don’t think that is quite as acute here in Australia as it is in the United States but I can tell you that parents are scared to death in the United States to let their kids go outside. This is also happening in the UK. There are studies that show the radius of how far kids can go beyond their house has been constricting decade after decade, now it’s basically the front stoop, maybe. The irony is in the United States this fear of strangers which then transitions into a fear of nature itself. This fear of strangers when you look at the actual statistics and it’s probably true here too the actual number of stranger abductions for instance has been going down for thirty years at least. What’s been going up is the non-stop coverage of a handful of terrible crimes against children every year by the twenty-four hour news cycle. The Kaiser Family Foundation in the United States found that a few years ago they reported that kids were spending about forty-four hours a week plugged into some kind of electronic medium. And then a couple of years ago they updated that report, that study and they found that it increased again to about fifty-four hours a week plugged into some kind of electronic medium for kids. That’s more hours than some of their parents work. The people doing this study were astounded, they didn’t know that there was that many more hours that could be taken up by electronics. So, electronics is not … shouldn’t be demonised, you have to be careful about that also. It’s a fact of life in kids’ lives and we have to be careful about that partly because it’s not practical to demonise it. You know anything that adults demonise that’s what kids want to do more of. But it’s a fact of life. So, you add that to the fear of strangers which transitions into an unreasonable, unknowing fear, none of the real risks of nature, but imagined risks of nature. And it’s understandable that more and more kids are spending more and more time indoors. And this has accelerated in the last thirty years to the point where it’s no longer the norm in many parts of the United States and perhaps in some parts of Australia for kids to just go out and dig a hole in the backyard, just go out and play independently in nature. We pay a huge price as that progresses, as many of you know. We pay a huge price in health, physical health, mental health. We pay a huge price in cognitive functioning and creativity. We pay a huge price in happiness and joy and a sense of awe and wonder. Where does that go? We pay a huge price in our relationship to the land, to the Earth. The studies of environmentalists, conservationists show that almost to a person, as adults when they were kids they had some transcended experiences with nature. What happens if that virtually ends on down the road? Who will be the future stewards of the Earth?, the true stewards. Increasingly if we’re not careful conservationists, environmentalists will carry nature in their briefcases but not in their hearts. And that’s a very different relationship that I don’t think it’s sustainable. You’ve got Glenn Albrecht in Perth who I actually met. He came backstage when I was speaking in Perth who is a philosopher. And they also have done studies on kind of psychological health and etc. He talks about solastalgia which is his term for a kind of deep nostalgic pain that people feel when they fear that nature’s being destroyed around them. Most of us have felt that. I certainly have. In addition to the bad news about the disconnection of children in nature, there is good news. And the good news is that finally, finally the people who study child development, human development have started really looking seriously at the impact of the natural world on child development, on health in general. This has been pretty much ignored until the last ten, fifteen years. There were pioneers that were working in this before. But only now this huge thing, this thing that we all take for granted, it’s a natural world only now is that being taken seriously as a real impact on child development. What their finding, the University of Illinois, the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder go down with just a little bit of contact with nature. The kids they’re studying are kids in the projects of Chicago, inner city kids and they found just a walk through the park through trees has an impact on the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. I can’t tell you how many teachers have told me that the troublemaker in class, when they take the class out in the natural world, the troublemaker becomes the leader, not just well behaved, the leader in class. I’ve been told that by teacher after teacher. Parents say the same thing, kids with symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder they get them outside and Johnny or Judy are different kids. You notice that I used the phrase the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. Attention Deficit Disorder at least in the United States has become a kind of an easy grab bag to throw a lot of symptoms you know. So, take a kid, take them out of nature, put them in a classroom, put them at a desk, give them tests over and over and over again. In the United States cancel recess, cancel field trips, test, test, test and you’re going to have some behavioural issues if you do that with kids, right? So, is that, pardon me? And teachers, yeah right, exactly. And in fact there’s a Canadian study that was done of teachers and found that the teachers when they take kids outdoors, those who have that ability to take kids outdoors, they don’t burn out as fast as the teachers who are trapped in the classroom with the kids. And it makes common sense. I was in St Louis a few months ago and they told me that a series of private schools that are requiring pre-school kids to sit at desks and do desk work for three hours a day. Can you imagine that? I don’t know how far that’s gone in Australia, this idea that we can test kids into smartness, you know. But it has gone way too far in the United States. Music .

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